Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Rise and Decline of the Male Breadwinner Family? An Overview of the Debate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 February 2009


In recent years feminist scholars have called for a complete rethinking and revision of the foundations of labour history as a necessary prerequisite for the integration of gender as a core concept into histories of labour and social class. In this attempt one of the most deeply rooted assumptions in male-oriented labour history needs to be identified and made subject to careful rethinking, namely the assumption that the public and the private sphere should be seen in terms of an essentially gendered opposition. Undoubtedly, one of the most powerful images used not only to represent but also to justify the gendering of the public and the private sphere is the image of the male breadwinner family and the male household head as the sole provider for his dependent wife and children. For this reason, the articles in this volume are all firmly at the heart of what may currently be seen as the crucial intersections in the history of labour, gender and social class.

Research Article
Copyright © Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis 1999


1 See Rose, Sonya, “Gender and Labor History. The Nineteenth-Century Legacy”, in van der Linden, Marcel (ed.), The End of Labour History?, International Review of Social History, Supplement 1 (1993), pp. 145162CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Creighton, Colin, “The Rise of the Male Breadwinner Family: A Reappraisal”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 38, 2 (1996), pp. 310337CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Seccombe, Wally, “Patriarchy Stabilized: The Construction of the Male Breadwinner Wage Norm in Nineteenth-Century Britain”, Social History, 11 (1986), pp. 5376CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Clark, Alice, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1982; 1st ed. 1919)Google Scholar. Others are: Oakley, A., Housewife (Harmondsworth, 1976)Google Scholar; Lewenhak, S., Women and Work (Glasgow, 1980)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For surveys of the debate see for instance: Hufton, Olwen, “Women in History: Early Modem Europe”, Past and Present, 101 (1983), pp. 124141Google Scholar, or Bradley, Harriet, Men's Work, Women's Work. A Sociological History of the Sexual Division of Labour in Employment (Oxford, 1989), pp. 3342Google Scholar.

6 Boserup, Esther, Women's Role in Economic Development (New York, 1970)Google Scholar.

7 See Bradley, Men's Work, Women's Work, p. 37; Snell, K. D. M., Annals of the Labouring Poor (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 270319CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Sanderson, Elizabeth, Women and Work in Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh (London and New York, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Quast, Jenneke, “Vrouwenarbeid omstreeks 1500 in enkele Nederlandse steden”, in Jaarboek voor Vrouwengeschiedenis, vol. 1 (Nijmegen, 1980), pp. 4664Google Scholar.

10 Kloek, Els, Wie hij zij, man of wijf. Vrouwengeschiedenis en de vroegmoderne tijd (Hilversum, 1990), pp. 4877Google Scholar.

11 Pott-Buter, Hettie, Facts and Fairy Tales about Female Labor, Family and Fertility (Amsterdam, 1993)Google Scholar. See in particular pp. 319–321.

12 Shorter, E., “Women's Work: What Difference did Capitalism Make?”, Theory and Society, 3, 4 (1976), pp. 513529CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Segalen, M., Love and Power in the Peasant Family (Oxford, 1983)Google Scholar; Gullickson, Gay L., Spinners and Weavers of Auffay. Rural Industry and the Sexual Division of Labor in a French Village, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See Bradley, Men's Work, Women's Work, pp. 38–39.

14 In another paper by Sara Horrell, written together with Deborah Oxley, on the household budgets of British industrial workers around 1890, it becomes clear that even amongst the better-paid workers the family could not survive without their children's labour: see “Breadwinning, Poverty and Resource Allocation in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain”, unpublished paper for session B17 of the forthcoming Twelfth International Economic History Congress, to be held in Seville in 1998.

15 Van den Eeckhout, Patricia, “Family Income of Ghent Working-Class Families ca. 1900”, Journal of Family History, 18, 2 (1993), pp. 87110CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Pérez-Fuentes, Pilar, Vivir y morir en las minas. Estrategias familiares y relaciones de género en la primera industrialización vizcaína: 1877–1913 (Bilbao, 1993)Google Scholar. See in particular pp. 274–275.

17 Luisa Muñoz, “The Family as a Work Group. Technological and Workplace Changes in Occupation in the Galician Fish-Canning Industry, an Empirical Case in Bueu, 1870–1930”, paper presented at the Third Workshop on Family Economies and Strategies, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, March 1997.

18 Seccombe, Wally, Weathering the Storm. Working-Class Families from the Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline (London and New York, 1993)Google Scholar. See in particular pp. 202–209.

19 Safa, Helen I., The Myth of the Male Breadwinner. Women and Industrialization in the Caribbean (Boulder, CO, 1995), pp. 4752Google Scholar.

20 See Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner, p. 50.

21 Collver, Andrew and Langlois, Eleanor, “The Female Labor Force in Metropolitan Areas: An International Comparison”, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 10, 4 (07 1962), pp. 367385CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 See ibid., p. 375. A note of caution seems appropriate here. The official statistics obviously do not cover all the economic activities that poor women may undertake in the home, varying from domestic production to self-provisioning activities.

23 Some parts of the following account are based on the excellent review article by Creighton, “The Rise of the Male Breadwinner Family”.

24 Additional supply-side variables for female labour force participation are numbers and ages of children present in the household. Whereas in more recent times the presence of very young children has had negative effects on labour force participation by married women, this effect is not generally found in more historic populations. See the article by Humphries and Horrell in this volume, or Hatton, T. J. and Bailey, R. E., “Female Labour Force Participation in Interwar Britain”, Oxford Economic Papers, 40 (1988), pp. 695718CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 See International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 8 (1968), pp. 478–481, entry: “Labour force: participation, women”.

26 Plantenga, Janneke, Een afwijkend patroon. Honderd jaar vrouwenarbeid in Nederlanden (West-)Duitsland (Amsterdam, 1993)Google Scholar. See p. 189.

27 Pott-Buter, Facts and Fairy Tales, see in particular pp. 319–321.

28 See Hatton and Bailey, “Female Labour Force Participation in Interwar Britain”, pp. 695–718.

29 Historical evidence shows that working wives were not necessarily married to the poorest workers. Two examples, both relating to industrial textile towns, Preston in England and Enschede in the Netherlands, suggest that the organization of the local labour market based on informal labour recruitment systems may help explain the labour force participation of these wives. See Savage, M., The Dynamics of Working-Class Politics: The Labour Movement in Preston, 1880–1940 (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 7479Google Scholar; Posthumus-Van der Goot, W.H., Onderzoek naar den arbeid der gehuwde vrouw in Nederland (Leiden, 1938), pp. 2122Google Scholar.

30 Dual systems theory continues to inform research in the field of women's subordination in the home, at work and at the level of the state. See, for instance, Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner, pp. 37–41.

31 Barrett, M., Women's Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis (London, 1980), p. 211Google Scholar.

32 See, for instance, Hartmann, H., “Capitalism, Patriarchy and Job Segregation by Sex”, in Eisenstein, Z. R. (ed.), Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism (New York, 1979)Google Scholar; idem, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union”, in Sargent, L. (ed.), Women and Revolution: The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (London, 1981)Google Scholar; Walby, S., Patriarchy at Work (Cambridge, 1986)Google Scholar; idem, Theorizing Patriarchy (Oxford, 1990). Other authors also recognize the dynamic dimension of the patriarchal system, which may make it differ historically or cross-culturally. See, for example, Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner, p. 38.

33 Hartmann, “Capitalism, Patriarchy and Job Segregation by Sex”; idem, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism”; Walby, Patriarchy at Work; idem, Theorizing Patriarchy.

34 These claims are difficult to substantiate. Protective legislation did not always lead to falling participation rates for women; and countries with different legislative measures had similar gender divisions of labour. But judgements differ. See, for instance, Goldin, C., Understanding the Gender Gap. An Economic History of American Women (Oxford, 1990), p. 198Google Scholar; Hudson, P. and Lee, W., “Women's Work and the Family Economy in Historical Perspective”, in Hudson, P. and Lee, W. (eds), Women's Work and the Family Economy in Historical Perspective (Manchester, 1990)Google Scholar.

35 See Rose, Sonya O., “Gender at Work: Sex, Class and Industrial Capitalism”, History Workshop 21 (Spring 1986), pp. 113131CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “Gender Segregation in the Transition to the Factory: The English Hosiery Industry, 1850–1910”, Feminist Studies, 13, 1 (1987), pp. 163–184; idem, “Gender Antagonism and Class Conflict: Exclusionary Strategies of Male Trade Unionists in Nineteenth-Century Britain”, Social History, 13, 2 (1988), pp. 191–208; idem, Limited Livelihoods. Gender and Class in Nineteenth-Century England (London, 1992).

36 Seccombe, Weathering the Storm, pp. 71–80.

37 Ibid., p. 79.

38 Ibid., p. 74.

39 Ibid., p. 79.

40 Ibid., pp. 82–83. In a forthcoming article on Spain, however, Enriqueta Camps has shown that in the Catalan textile industry the second Industrial Revolution actually led to an increase in married women's participation in paid labour, as a substitute for children's work. A reduction in skill qualifications and declining fertility rates together with compulsory schooling for children and a relative improvement of female wages are considered to be key factors. See Camps, Enriqueta, “Transitions in Women's and Children's Work Patterns. Implications for the Study of the Family Income and the Household Structure, a Case Study from the Catalan Textile Sector (1850–1925)”, The History of the Family. An International Quarterly (forthcoming, 1997)Google Scholar.

41 Seccombe, Weathering the Storm, p. 114.

42 Creighton, “The Rise of the Male Breadwinner Family”, p. 322.

43 This concept is derived from Sen, Amartya (Resources, Values and Development (Oxford, 1984), pp. 374376)Google Scholar and denotes a family bargaining model in which all members cooperate to achieve certain outcomes beneficial to all compared with non-cooperation, whilst all parties at the same time have conflicting interests in the choice of effective cooperative outcomes.

44 Seccombe, “Patriarchy Stabilized”.

45 Humphries, J., “Class Struggle and the Persistence of the Working-Class Family”, Cam-bridge Journal of Economics, 1, 3 (1977), pp. 241258Google Scholar.

46 The argument that the male breadwinner family served the interests of the working-class family as a whole may also be found in Brenner and Ramas. However, their perspective is different. Brenner and Ramas argue that the gendered division of labour within the working-class family arose out of the conflicting demands between childcare and work outside the home under the conditions of capitalist production. Families opted for the male breadwinner system in order to ensure their family's biological survival. See Brenner, J. and Ramas, M., “Rethinking Women's Oppression”, New Left Review, 144 (1984), pp. 3371Google Scholar.

47 Lown, Judy, “Not so Much a Factory, More a Form of Patriarchy: Gender and Class during Industrialisation”, in Gamamikow, Eva et al. , Gender, Class and Work (London, 1983), pp. 1127Google Scholar; Rose, Limited Livelihoods.

48 Benenson, H., “The ‘Family Wage’ and Working Women's Consciousness in Britain, 1880–1914”, Politics and Society, 19, 1 (1991), pp. 71108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Compare for a similar argument on Central and Latin America, Safa, The Myth of the Male Breadwinner, pp. 46–58.

50 See Creighton, “The Rise of the Male Breadwinner Family”, p. 329.

51 Kalb, Don, “Expanding Class: Power and Everyday Politics in Industrial Communities, North Brabant Illustrations, ca. 1850–1950” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Utrecht, 1995), p. 13Google Scholar.

52 Bradley, Men's Work, Women's Work, pp. 166–171.

53 van Drenth, Annemieke, De zorg om het Philipsmeisje. Fabrieksmeisjes in de elektrotechnische Industrie in Eindhoven (1900–1960) (Zutphen, 1991), p. 89Google Scholar.

34 It is tempting to associate this case of female breadwinners with manual production, which allows for greater flexibility in work schedules than mechanized production. That female breadwinning and a fully mechanized production system are not mutually exclusive is demonstrated, however, by Joyce Parr's study of two Ontario towns in the first half of the twentieth century. In Paris, one of these two towns, female breadwinning throughout the family life cycle was made possible in the local textile industry through adaptations by employers, family members, the community and working mothers: see Parr, Joyce, The Gender of Breadwinners. Women, Men, and Change in Two Industrial Towns, 1880–1950 (Toronto, 1990)Google Scholar.

55 See, for instance, Pederson, Susan, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State, Britain and France, 1914–1945 (Cambridge, 1993)Google Scholar; and Sainsbury, Diane, Gender, Equality and the Welfare States (Cambridge, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 On this debate see, for instance, ibid., pp. 40–44.

57 For a comparable position see Pedersen, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State. Pedersen argues that the weak French male breadwinner system was supported by employers' policies, which were later incorporated into state policies, providing family benefits for both male and female workers with children. This undercut male workers' claim for a family wage. Pedersen contrasts the French case with the British system, which directed state efforts more towards protecting the integrity and superiority of male wages, thereby institutionalizing relations of dependence within the family.

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 5
Total number of PDF views: 1798 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 5th December 2020. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-b4dcdd7-bf5bq Total loading time: 0.394 Render date: 2020-12-05T15:36:33.787Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "1", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags last update: Sat Dec 05 2020 15:01:15 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time) Feature Flags: { "metrics": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "peerReview": true, "crossMark": true, "comments": true, "relatedCommentaries": true, "subject": true, "clr": false, "languageSwitch": true }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The Rise and Decline of the Male Breadwinner Family? An Overview of the Debate
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

The Rise and Decline of the Male Breadwinner Family? An Overview of the Debate
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

The Rise and Decline of the Male Breadwinner Family? An Overview of the Debate
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *